The Rise and Fall of Arthur Porter

Published in the National Post, September 29, 2014

Arthur Porter led a seemingly charmed life, which took him from the impoverished country of his birth, Sierra Leone, to elite Cambridge University, where he earned a medical degree. The young Arthur Porter, “ambitious and driven,” as he describes himself, embarked on a dizzying rise to the top ranks of hospital administration in the United States and Canada. One of the most improbable steps along the way was his appointment in 2008 by the Harper government to the status of Queen’s Privy Councillor and member of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), a very sensitive job serving as a watchdog over the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada’s spy agency. By 2010, Porter was not just a member, but the appointed chairman of SIRC, for what was meant to be a five-year sinecure.

He was exactly the wrong kind of person to appoint to SIRC: No political experience, no knowledge of the world of security and intelligence, no capacity for thoughtful, non-partisan analysis, no moral compass.

But his fortune didn’t hold. Only a year into his chairmanship, a scandal involving inappropriate business and international dealings, first reported by the National Post in November 2010, cost him his coveted job at SIRC. And from there matters only worsened. Now, nothing remains of the charmed life. Porter, in ill health, scrapes by in a notorious Panamanian jail, trying to fend off extradition to Quebec, where he faces fraud charges over the awarding of a hospital construction project.

The recent publication of a prison memoir by Porter, jauntily titled The Man Behind the Bow Tie, gives us an opportunity to rethink several chapters of this extraordinary life, especially the role he was handed to judge the conduct of our spies. Like many memoirs, Porter’s tale is a very uneven mix of confession and self-exculpation. The mixture here is often self-damning. His loose lips, as it were, sink his own ship.

By his own telling, there was nothing that justified his appointment to SIRC, beyond the debased coin of patronage. Once installed at SIRC, his attitudes towards the conduct of Canadian intelligence were, at best, superficial and, at worst, at odds with Canadian values. Porter was not a fit guardian, and brought into disrepute the office that Canadians rely on to keep tabs on our spies.

Porter tells us in his memoir that he ticked “all the right boxes” for an appointment to SIRC. What he means by the “right boxes” is clear: He was a known Conservative, had friends in the party, routinely attended fundraisers, did the back-slapping routine and was a doctor with an African background and international experience. In other words, he was a patronage appointment with multicultural benefits. No mention is made of his non-existent knowledge of security and intelligence matters, or his complete lack of political experience.

Why did Porter want the job? On this he is disarmingly clear as well, as men with large egos are inclined to be. He was after the job title, particularly the “honourable” designation that comes with being a Privy Councillor. There were other perks, as well. “I received a huge certificate and heightened security clearance,” he writes. “When I die, the flag flying over Parliament will be brought to half-mast.”

Canada’s Sharpest International Affairs Commentary
Don’t miss future posts on the CIPS Blog. Subscribe to our email newsletter.

One of Arthur Porter’s first tasks when he joined SIRC was to assist the committee in reviewing the very contentious matter of CSIS’s interviews with Omar Khadr in his cell at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. SIRC’s report on the matter, summarized in its 2008-09 annual report, was far from hard-hitting, but did at least suggest that in future, CSIS should have better knowledge of the practices of its foreign partners and that, if it ever had to interview a 15-year-old in search of vital intelligence, then it should be better versed in the special status of children under international law. These conclusions would seem like no-brainers, but they’re better than Porter could manage in his memoir, where he only makes vague reference to Canadian policy having been “wrong.”

Elsewhere in the book, Porter is much more red-meat in his references to torture and other questionable intelligence-gathering techniques, criticizing Canada’s unwillingness to get its hands dirty in the global fight against terrorism. Porter clearly believes there is a big-boy approach to intelligence, which he approves of.  In fact, he is very fond of the phrase “big boy table,” which appears to reflect, not only an outlook on international politics, but also a personal desire to be there at that table, whenever it is set.

Arthur Porter gained the chairmanship of SIRC in the summer of 2010, following the completion of Gary Filmon’s term. Even though he came to the SIRC chairmanship late in the annual cycle of reporting, Porter claims credit for a major message contained in SIRC’s 2009-2010 annual report. That message was that a public debate was needed on the future direction of Canadian intelligence, based on all the changes that had occurred since the 9/11 attacks. At the heart of the issue was the question of how much of a foreign intelligence role CSIS — which was originally designed back in 1984 as a domestic spy agency — should play. The call to debate issues of intelligence was timely and needed even if somewhat un-Canadian.

But, to be fair to Porter’s fellow SIRC members and, in particular, to its previous chair, Gary Filmon, this was not an Arthur Porter-devised question. Nor does Porter reveal himself to have any particular ideas about the answer. Instead, he seems to have been nobbled by long-standing bureaucratic arguments about foreign intelligence and its costs, its alleged poor fit with Canadian mentalities and its uncertain objectives. Porter sums it all up in the language he likes best — Canada was not enough of a “big boy” country to warrant having a real foreign intelligence service. There are plenty of arguments for and against having a full-blown foreign spy agency, arguments that date back to the earliest proposals put forward in 1945. But the macho language of “big boy” status takes us no closer to resolution of a fundamental issue about Canadian intelligence needs.

The only annual SIRC report delivered when Arthur Porter was fully in the driver’s seat was the 2010-2011 report, which was tabled in Parliament six weeks prior to his resignation. The report undercut Justice O’Connor’s recommendation for more broad-based review of Canadian intelligence and security activities, instead calling for more power for his own review agency. The Porter-led SIRC urged CSIS to engage in more private-sector relationships. And it patted the RCMP and CSIS on the back for their ability to co-operate with one another, while calling for the dismantling of a long-established system that facilitated exchanges of information between the two agencies (a recommendation that was not acted on).  There were a few other softball recommendations, including some related to its investigation of CSIS’ involvement in the interrogation of Afghan detainees.

See also:

Maybe there were things in Arthur Porter’s alleged government-issue “imploding briefcase” that he has forgotten to tell us about. Perhaps the memory of that stern, armed Mountie (allegedly) posted at his shoulder as he (allegedly) read secret documents in his Montreal office has chilled his tongue. But the overall impression that Porter conveys in his memoir, no doubt unconsciously, is of a man who contributed nothing to the real business of SIRC — the business being to engage in serious, thoughtful scrutiny, on behalf of Canadians, of the world of espionage.

Porter was long gone before Edward Snowden began leaking his documents about America’s global electronic surveillance. But Arthur Porter, master of spies, can’t help give one more insightful reflection. Don’t worry, he says, Snowden’s leaks are of “little consequence” because “Nothing is private anymore.… We live in a Brave New World.”

The lesson of Arthur Porter is simple. He was exactly the wrong kind of person to appoint to SIRC: No political experience, no knowledge of the world of security and intelligence, no capacity for thoughtful, non-partisan analysis, no moral compass. Now it behooves the current government and its successors to give serious thought to what the right kind of person should be.

A start could be made by actually appointing a SIRC chairman. The SIRC chairmanship has been vacant since Chuck Strahl’s resignation in January and the committee is down to three members, rather than the statutory five. Any fresh appointment to the SIRC chair should involve a much-more transparent process, involving genuine consultation with opposition parties and hearings before the appropriate Parliamentary committee. In that way, we might avoid a future man-on-the-make and actually give SIRC greater credibility and clout.

Related Articles


The CIPS Blog is written only by subject-matter experts. For a list of our authors, please click here.